April 13th marks the first day of National Library Week, a celebration sponsored by the American Library Association that has been observed since 1958. The week-long celebration is aimed at promoting the use and support of libraries. According to the “State of America’s Libraries Report” released last year during National Library Week, 53% of Americans reported visiting a library or book mobile in the past year.
Whether you count yourself among those 53% or not, this week is a good time to step back and appreciate what our public libraries have to offer. Robert Dawson’s new book, The Public Library: A Photographic Essay (Princeton Architectural Press, April) is a good place to start. The book includes photographs taken by Dawson over the past eighteen years of public libraries across the country, and includes essays by Bill Moyers, Ann Patchett, Anne Lamott, Amy Tan, and Barbara Kingsolver, among others.
Some of the libraries in Dawson’s book are stately old buildings with elegant columns, while others are modern and architecturally surprising. Still others are nothing more than a bus, or a tiny box. The size or shape of the library isn’t important, though. In the afterward of the book, Ann Patchett writes, “After all, libraries have always been defined more by their spirit than by their space. Even the smallest can provide that deep human comfort that comes from reading and ideas.” This notion of the spirit of the library is something readers of Dawson’s book come to experience as they view one after another of the broad range of this country’s nearly 17,000 libraries. These buildings, whether old or new, stone or wood, crumbling or gleaming, all share the same soul.
It is impossible to think about libraries without reflecting on the books we read there. Patchett tells of being in seventh grade, thwarted again and again by her Catholic school librarian from taking out the novels of her choice until she finally gave up and opted for some poetry. Thanks to her library, Patchett started reading T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Sylvia Plath.
While it was certainly wonderful that Patchett stumbled upon (or perhaps was forced into) reading these poets she ended up enjoying, Neil Gaiman might have something to say to Patchett’s school librarian. In a lecture last October given to The Reading Agency, Gaiman argues that children should be encouraged to read as much as possible, and to read whatever they happen to enjoy. On the subject of libraries, Gaiman says, “libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.”
This sentiment is captured by both Dawson’s photographs and by National Library Week. Books are transformational, and the spaces that house these books, that make them available to anyone who wants to read them, are transformational, too. Patchett writes, “That’s what a library promises us, after all: a better life. And that’s what libraries have delivered.”
The theme for this year’s National Library Week is “Lives change @ your library®.” How has the library changed YOUR life?
Cover photo, Central Library in Kansas City: Mike Sinclair
All other photos: Robert Dawson